Review: Bully

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Bully

With all the controversy over its MPAA rating, Bully has been more newsworthy than most documentaries. The publicity has been a blessing and a curse -- while it may boost the film's box office, all the hoopla also may raise the audience's expectations beyond what the film delivers.

In some ways, Bully does live up to its promise. The documentary about bullied kids is often powerful and poignant, a heartbreaking look at schoolyard taunting and abuse carried to tragic extremes. But while the movie effectively captures the harried world of bullied children and teens, Bully's narrow focus and shallow take on its subject won't satisfy viewers looking for a more sophisticated perspective on the issue.

While the absurd nature of MPAA ratings can raise any film critic's hackles, I want this review to focus on Bully's cinematic qualities rather than its ratings controversy. That said, the months-long feud between the ratings board and Bully's producers (The Weinstein Company) bears mentioning.

The MPAA initially slapped Bully with an R rating for having a few too many f-bombs and other bits of schoolhouse profanity. The Weinsteins balked at the rating, arguing that it would prevent Bully's target audience of tweens and young teens from seeing the film in theaters. The producers deemed Bully so important that they released it without a rating, albeit in only five theaters. But because most theater chains won't show unrated films, the Weinsteins then trimmed some offending language from three scenes in exchange for a kid-friendlier PG-13 rating. Depending on whom you talk to, the version of Bully opening nationwide this weekend represents either a necessary compromise or a crassly commercial copout.

Tempting as this matter is, I won't chime in on it. Instead, I'll tell you that Bully is a watchable, entirely well-intentioned attempt to put bullying on the radar of kids, parents, educators and anyone else who hasn't been paying attention.

The film focuses on a handful of long-suffering kids whose stories range from unfortunate to unthinkably tragic. Gangly, glasses-wearing tween Alex Libby greets every day with trepidation, knowing other kids will terrorize him on the school bus. Oklahoma teen Kelby Johnson thought most of her peers would be tolerant and accepting when she came out as a lesbian. She was wrong, of course; she and her parents are pariahs, but she but gets by with help from her adoring girlfriend and a few close friends.

Bullied 14-year-old Ja'Meya Jackson felt so helpless and frustrated that she waved her mother's loaded handgun at her tormentors on a school bus, an unwise (but somewhat understandable) decision that landed her in juvenile custody. The most tragic stories are those of Tyler Long, who hanged himself at 17 after years of abuse from his classmates, and Ty Smalley, whose suffering also ended in suicide. Smalley's story is especially devastating; he shot himself at age 11.

Bully draws us into the kids' worlds with amazing intimacy, recording their struggles and their parents' frustration with apathetic school officials. The bullies are ruthless; surprisingly, the cameras don't seem to deter them. The school officials come across as ineffective at best and indifferent at worst; they deny the extent of the problem and seem at a loss for solutions, doing little more than giving the bullies a good talking-to and trying to turn enemies into friends with apologies and handshakes. (One of Bully's most telling moments is when a school principal walks the school hallways and repeatedly says to no one in particular, "Tell me how to fix this.")

Bully is very effective at generating great sympathy for its subjects; we certainly feel the kids' pain and share the grief of parents whose children were driven to suicide. What the film lacks, however, is any real journalistic depth. Bully doesn't explore why kids bully each other or examine the many forces -- bad parenting and society's tolerance of violence, to name only two -- that contribute to abusive behavior.

Although too many talking heads can kill an otherwise gripping documentary, Bully badly needs a few interviews with experts in child psychology, education, cultural trends and other subjects related to bullying. The film presents few statistics and gives us little sense of the bigger picture. Is bullying more of a problem now than it was for earlier generations of kids? If so, why? Bullying probably has been around since the dawn of humanity; what's different about it now? What are the effects of new cultural influences like social networking? Bully neither asks nor answers these questions, focusing instead on what we already know.

Not that this focus is an entirely bad thing. Again, Bully is a powerful reminder of how cruel life can be for kids who aren't entirely conformist or conventionally attractive or athletically talented or socially adept. (An aside: Ask me about my elementary school days sometime.) And its emotional wallop may be a more effective call to action than the fact-filled explanations of child psychology experts.

But for all its powerful scenes of bullying's emotional toll, Bully tells us nothing new and offers no real solutions to the problem. The film ends with touching footage of vigils to remember bullying victims; these vigils are great awareness builders, but awareness alone won't address the root causes of bullying. And Bully barely hints at these causes, which is why it isn't in league with top-tier message documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Bowling for Columbine.

Bully is a noble attempt to focus our attention on an all too common problem and inspire us to think of it as something more than a kids-will-be-kids fact of life. For this reason, I recommend the film (especially for children and teens) and hope it finds a large and responsive audience. That audience, however, will need to look elsewhere for solutions.

Texas connections: Parts of Bully were shot in Texas.